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Alistair Thompson: Cameron is no Obama

AtAlistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

It was inevitable that following the re-election of Barak Obama — met with gleeful whoops of delight from Team Cameron — that No.10 insiders would draw comparisons between their man and US President.

But a couple of days ago Mr Cameron’s right-hand man, George Osborne, extrapolated from these comparisons to declare that the Conservatives can win the next election with a mixture of economic toughness and social liberalism.

It is easy to see why Mr Osborne might think this. Messers Cameron and Obama both want to lead from the centre. They both inherited an economy in serious trouble with a debt mountain, and are desperately trying to turn it around. Both lack a strong sense of ideology. In Mr Obama's case this is partly due to his academic background and approach to politics, and in Mr Cameron's case the naked, pragmatic pursuit of power. Both have so far failed to deliver sustained growth. And, finally, both face opponents who have failed to connect with the ordinary voters.

Team Cameron believe that the criticisms of Mitt Romney — wooden, remote and odd — apply to Ed Miliband. It certainly is true that Mr Miliband is seen by many voters as odd: not the sort of person you would want to have a drink with at the pub, as one commentator said. But Labour are very conscious of this attack line, hence the "no notes" speech by the Labour Leader at their Conference and attempts to portray him as just an "ordinary guy," as Tony Blair might have put it.

It is at this point that the rest of the tenuous similarities between David Cameron and Barack Obama end.

To start with, unlike the President who led in virtually every national poll, Mr Cameron has trailed in every major poll this year by around 10 per cent. And this lead has been amassed by the PM’s opponent in an electoral system that is completely different to the U.S's, and biased towards Labour. Compounding this lead is the increasing difficulty that the Conservative Party is having in raising funds. By contrast, both the Republicans and Democrats raised and spent billions of dollars in the most expensive election in US history. And the fantastic amounts spent by each party were further bolstered by various lobby groups and super PACs.

Secondly, and most importantly, while Mr Obama was seen as in touch with ordinary voters and their concerns, Mr Cameron is seen as out of touch. Looking at the break down of who backed Mr Obama, he won a majority of the ethnic votes, including 94 per cent of the African American voters, and crucially, for states like Florida, a clear majority of the Hispanic vote, 70 per cent to 30 per cent. This latter, small-c conservative group continue to favour the Democrats over the Republicans.

Mr Obama also won a majority of votes amongst women; a lead of between 11-12 percentage points which rose to 38 percentage points amongst unmarried women. He also won amongst those aged 44 or below, winning 52 per cent of those aged 30-44 and 60 per cent of those aged 18-29, and did well amongst blue collar voters.

Mr Cameron, by contrast, does not enjoy such popularity among any of these groups. He is seen as too rich and upper class by many voters. More damagingly, the PM he is increasingly seen as aloof and uncaring. This is why Nadine Dorries' withering attack on Mr Cameron, describing him as an arrogant posh boy who doesn't know the cost of a pint of milk, was so devastating and refuses to go away.

Thirdly, there's the decline of politics in the UK. Unlike our cousins across the pond, we have ditched the deference once showed to those in high office or seeking high office. Whereas once we treated our leaders with the up most respect, now we treat them with mild contempt at best and outright hostility at worst. And this attitude manifests itself in the millions of people deciding not to engage with politics, including by not voting.

At the same time, politics is seen as less relevant to people. Decision-making on a range of issues — along with how taxpayers money is spent — has become more remote. This is not just due to the rise of the quangocracy and bureaucratic red tape, but also a genuine failure of our political leaders to inspire voters with big ideas, take decisions and get them implemented; a case in point being the PM’s Big Society.

When I grew up, in the 1980s, there was a clear ideological divide with a political discourse that really mattered. Today there is just a hair’s breadth between the parties on a range of issues, hence the unedifying scramble by David Cameron to be the Heir to Blair and Ed Miliband’s desperate attempt to capture the One Nation title.

So for these reasons the mass rallies we have enjoyed watching on our TVs — the stadia filled with party activists, all cheering on the political stars of their party — are never going to happen in the UK. The British parties struggle to fill their annual conferences. Just look at party membership in this country. In 1950 the Conservative Party had 2.8 million members; today, less than 130,000. The Labour Party has seen a similar if less dramatic fall falling from 1 million members in 1950 to roughly 185,000 today.

And as for the Lib Dems, some reports say their membership has fallen to just 50,000. Is it any wonder that some speeches at their conference were listened to by more journalist and lobbyists than party members? Contrast that with the dynamic force of the caravan club, which has nearly half a million members, twice as many as all the political parties put together.

Finally, President Obama, has a political narrative, a vision that he was successful in selling to the American public. Unfortunately, this is something that is completely absent from the PM’s campaign. “Not Red Ed” is not a narrative, neither are isolated policy successes such as reform of schools and the welfare system, no matter how popular they are.

So, No 10 and Mr Osborne must not take any comfort from the President’s re-election, because Mr Cameron is no Obama, and the UK is not the US.


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